Those who identify with Reformed theology are not often known to be the most charitable to opposing viewpoints, to say the least. In fact, pejorative terms like “TR” (Truly Reformed) are thrown around carelessly to describe those who are seen as too narrowly Confessional, or those who would prefer to first identify with their small slice of an even smaller theological tradition within Christianity than with the broader Protestant church around the world.
I have never felt that such a narrow Confessionalism, which leaves large swathes of brothers and sisters outside of the fold, was what Jesus had in mind when he prayed for the unity of the church (John 17:21). After all, the Apostles’ Creed ends, not with a belief in the holy Reformed church, but an affirmation of the holy catholic church (a reference in the Creed and this post to the “universal” church across space and time, and not to the Roman Catholic Church).
As someone who identifies with both the Reformed tradition and the broader evangelical movement (call me a Reformed “catholic” if you wish), I was pleasantly surprised to read Mark Jones’ recent article on the resurgence of “Reformed catholicity.” I have nothing to disagree with in his post, so I offer the following not as a criticism, but rather as a reflection on what helped him become more catholic and what might help others do the same.
If I’m reading Jones correctly, he notes two main experiences that helped him see that “to be truly Reformed, in [his] view, is to be a Reformed catholic.”
First, Jones notes how the Reformed tradition itself is diverse:
We must admit: our tradition has lots of diversity. Lots. And this diversity is present in the way our Confessions were formed, if one reads them carefully
The diversity he mentions is of course different from the diversity we speak of on this site. He speaks of a theological diversity; we speak of an ethno-racial one. In a previous article, Jones writes how his PhD studies revealed a striking theological diversity and charity among Reformed theologians that is absent from modern debaters who are too quick to label opponents as outside the fold.
Second, Jones notes how visiting Christians in South Africa, China, Brazil, and elsewhere helped give him a different perspective.
I can only speak for myself on this matter, but visiting South Africa, China, Brazil, and other lesser-known parts of the world (e.g., Holland), has been good for me. I have spent a lot of time with godly Christian men and women who do not quite have their theology as precise as Reformed confessionalists do here in North America. But when you see their basic love for the Lord, their desire to exalt Christ, and their joy that their sins are forgiven and that God has given them his Holy Spirit, you tend to gain a different perspective compared to those who perhaps spend a little too much time in one place with those who agree with them on almost everything.
To that I can only give a hearty, “Amen!” He ends with a sort of exhortation or recommendation for those who are more proudly “TR” than “catholic”:
I’d love for some of the “hotter sort” of seminarians visit Christians in other countries; it may be more valuable for their theological and pastoral development than most of the PT classes they take.
To that I would add the following:
- Visit your Christian neighbors right here in America who come from different cultural and ethnic backgrounds.
The experience that Jones had when visiting Christians in other countries is what minority Christians often experience on a day-to-day basis. To speak from my own experience of going to seminary, I was initially struck by how so many of my brothers and sisters who came from mono-cultural backgrounds could not see how their bi-cultural classmates could disagree with their understanding of theology and church practice. They were surprised by the diversity, while those of us who grew up in bi-cultural settings saw it as second-nature. For many of us, simply attending seminary and learning from teachers who came from the same background (mostly white American) was analogous to what Jones may have felt in China, for example.
I only have personal anecdotes to back up this claim, but I think it’s noteworthy that most Reformed minorities I’ve interacted with lean more towards being catholic than TR. Both theological and ethno-racial diversity hits minorities in the face, and the Reformed catholicity that Jones learned gradually through his studies is often demanded of us before we have a chance to respond. When we see the discrepancies between the church practices cherished by our ethno-racial heritage and what is taught by majority-culture churches, we have no choice but to accept that the church is much broader than we grew up believing.
We would all benefit much from spending significant time among brothers and sisters in Christ who look different from us. We no longer need to take a plane overseas to do this; there are many churches around us filled with people from all nations!
- Understand how your cultural upbringing or experience has influenced your theology.
As a Korean-American Christian, I can see very easily how Korean culture has influenced the Korean church. The way we pray, the way we shepherd, the way we respect elders – all of these have been profoundly influenced by our shared history and experience. This is just as true for those from Western backgrounds, though they may not see this as readily. Our experience shapes our theology, and this is not to be feared, but embraced.
Who would deny that Calvin’s experience of exile in Geneva influenced his magisterial work on the Psalms of Lament? Who would deny that Luther’s existential crises had an impact on his need for theological certainty? What is true for Reformed minorities is true for all Christians. Understanding how your cultural upbringing has influenced your theology and church practice will help loosen your grip on a narrow Confessionalism that is unwilling to embrace the diversity of the universal church.
If Philip Jenkins is right and the frontline of Christian ministry is really moving to the East, then we must all be ready for the increasing diversity (both ethno-racial and theological) of the global church. If Reformed Christians in the West wish to serve the global church, they must be willing to adopt a Reformed catholicity that is quick to listen and slow to speak (James 1:19).
At the same time, I agree with Jones that a Reformed catholicity should not mean theological compromise. As Jones notes, Reformed theologians like John Owen and Charles Hodge were much more charitable than many who identify as TR today, and yet they held strongly to their convictions. The global church will not be served by those who are unwilling to acknowledge or embrace diversity, but neither will she be served by those who compromise on the essentials of the faith or those who believe theological distinctives are unimportant.
Brothers and sisters, let us all be eager to maintain the unity of the bond of peace (Eph 4:3) while holding fast the confession of our hope without wavering (Heb 10:23). Too many today are less than eager to maintain unity, and far too many are quick to waver in their confession.